Active Voice Discussion #1: Most Despised Tropes

Jess and I have decided to try out a new feature here at AV. Once a month, we’ll be posting a discussion question centered around some of the topics we’ve always wanted to talk about here but either haven’t had a chance to bring up in reviews, or want to focus on outside of reviews. And of course, we’d love for everyone reading to jump in with their own answers in the comments.

So without further ado, here is our first question: Which tropes do you hate the most when you run across them as you’re reading?

Jess: Well, as I’ve noted before, I will immediately close any book that has no significant female characters. I think we’re all also aware that I’m not a fan of supernatural romance, though that’s more of a genre than a trope. Anything that villifies teenage girls (most common in books aimed at little boys – think Phineas and Ferb-style humor) makes me see red. I don’t like unearned power-ups (“Lo! By touching the Orb of Odin you have gained the knowledge you need to defeat the dragon!”) or unnecessarily cryptic mentors (“I could tell you you’re the Chosen One, but I won’t, because then the book would be over too soon”).

But one of my biggest pet peeves is something I’ve seen with increasing frequency since the successes of Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket: “wacky” child abuse. Look, let’s call a spade a spade. Harry is abused by the Dursleys. The Baudelaires are abused by…everyone. But Rowling and Snicket are able to hit a really delicate balance of making you feel bad for the protagonist(s) while keeping their suffering kind of unreal and funny, especially in the lighter early books of both series. The Dursleys are funny, so their emotional neglect of Harry doesn’t initially come off as horrifying. The Baudelaires are asked to do things so ludicrous it doesn’t read as upsetting (i.e. a pre-verbal infant working in a lumber mill).

Too many books have attempted to copy that and instead landed on “…That’s not okay.” (The Sisters Grimm, chained to a radiator by a foster parent, spring to mind.) To pull this sort of thing off, you need to have a) really funny prose, b) a slightly unreal “real” world, and c) a sensitivity to what reads as believable child abuse, so that you can avoid it. Not nearly enough books have all three, and feeling like you need to call Child Protective Services is not a good way to start a fun adventure novel.

Becky: Oh man, Jess totally hit on one of mine, which was the wizened mentor thing. “Yes, young protagonist, I know you have a lot of questions, and I will answer them all…when the time is right.” Yet the right time is never before the protagonist almost gets killed because s/he doesn’t know what’s going on. It irks me because it’s just so sloppy. If your story would fall apart if someone gave the protagonist a primer on who’s trying to kill them and why, then you need more there there. Withholding exposition for no reason is a totally false way of creating suspense.

Here’s another trope I’ve come to hate, thanks to some prominent cases in the last couple of years: big final battles where a whole lot of people die to up the drama and angst. During HP7: The Campenating, a handful of characters died in the background – but it was so background that I actually didn’t realize Lupin was dead until his ghost showed up. Mockingjay was an offender, too. Come on, after building up Finnick so much, you’re going to kill him offscreen as Katniss scrambles away? Bah. Humbug. There are plenty of ways to create drama and angst; wholesale slaughter can be one of them, but it can also make things lose emotional impact instead of giving them that emotional gutpunch you’re going for.

So those are our worst offenders. What tropes do you hate?

    4 Responses to “Active Voice Discussion #1: Most Despised Tropes”

    1. Jenny says:

      Oo. Your website shows up my comment as I’m writing it. That is sort of scary and unnerving if you don’t realize what’s happening. I had three go-rounds of thinking I’d hit Enter prematurely and trying to figure out how to edit/delete my comment.

      Anyway, your thing about child abuse reminded me: it is my absolute peeviest pet peeve when all the child protection workers in all of fiction (including movies and like all television shows ever) are malicious and evil and will take your child away for NO REASON. I seriously do not understand why a group of people whose job it is to stop child abuse are so consistently vilified. I read a book recently (but then I got cross and stopped) where the child protection worked threatened the plucky protagonist that she would MAKE a reason to take her away if the kid didn’t stop, like, I don’t know, being plucky in some way (I can’t remember because the whole thing was SO DUMB).

    2. As a preteen girl, I hated it when I read historical novels whose teen male protagonists start getting wibbly over one of their friends, and then it’s revealed that said friend was a girl in disguise all along! Then, I hated it because I had been promised boys making out. Now, I hate it because a.) I’ve been promised boys making out, b.) her story sounds much more interesting to me than his, and c.) you seriously couldn’t write a single interesting female character who works within her historical context? I mean, I love and adore heroines who engage “in a little subterfuge”, as Mrs. Bradley calls it, but it’s really a symptom of a lot of femmephobia in YA lit these days (seriously, A. C. Gaughen defends her decision to make Will Scarlet a girl in Scarlet by saying that she just could never fathom Robin Hood falling in love with a character so passive as Marian—and, apparently, the only way to be not passive is to be an emotionally unavailable person who gets in fights all the time, THERE IS NO OTHER OPTION) and authors feeling unsure that people will identify or sympathize characters who aren’t like them.

      I also hate romance narratives where the woman clearly says “No”, but the man and the narrator sort of wink at the audience that “Oh, it’s only a matter of time!”. The fifth issue of Fables ends that way and it makes me want to rage.

      I have more, but I think that’s enough for now.

    3. Jessica says:

      @Jenny: Oh, that makes me crazy too! Teachers and child psychologists get this treatment a lot, too. I stopped reading this book because the teacher was so unrealistically evil. Like, yes, there are bad ones, but the vast majority are not Severus Snape.

      @Literary Omnivore: I don’t think I’ve ever read a girl-disguised-as-a-boy book (which will absolutely be on my Favorite Tropes list) from the point of view of the dude she likes. Ew. What is the point? P.S. I WILL FIGHT ANYONE WHO SAYS MARIAN IS BORING, SHE IS GREAT.

    4. tawg says:

      Do you dislike child abuse in all YA books, or just the ones where the abuse describe jars given the rest of the tone? I’ve read a few YA books that really focus on the abuse and the experiences, and while they certainly left me in need of a long hug, they did have a lot of worth as a text. But I completely agree that a scene of abuse can really shake me more than I think was intended because it seems so out of place with the rest of the tone.

      A trope that I HATE is a female character being set up as strong and independent, so of course her male love interest needs to “put her in her place” and also assault her by touching her in ways that she objects to, and then of course THEY FALL IN LOVE. I know this is the characterisation arc of nearly every romance novel ever, and I am so sick of it. Ugh.

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